Rafael Nadal vs. Novak Djokovic. The best two players on the best court in the best moment. For tennis, The New Rivalry gets its big day Sunday in the Wimbledon final. Sure, Nadal already beat Djokovic in the U.S. Open final in September, and that will count when people tally up this rivalry years later. But Djokovic wasn’t at Nadal’s level yet. He still might not be, to be honest, but here’s his chance.
This moment could be to Djokovic what Nadal’s classic win over Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final meant to him. On the other hand, if Nadal wins, he will be the champ of five of the past six majors, and on one of the most dominant runs in tennis history.
Amazing how one match can change things so much. How perfect that it will happen at Centre Court, Wimbledon. It is the ideal way to build interest in the game, too, among Average Joe sports fans who aren’t into tennis otherwise.
Both players won their semifinal matches Friday. Djokovic beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga 7-6 (7-4), 6-2, 6-7 (11-9), 6-3, and Nadal beat Andy Murray 5-7, 6-2, 6-2, 6-4.
Whoever wins Sunday is the best player in the world, even though Djokovic will move to No. 1 no matter what. That’s right, even if No. 1 Nadal beats No. 2 Djokovic, the next day the rankings will read 1 Djokovic, 2 Nadal.
When Djokovic won Friday, he fell to the court as if he had won Wimbledon, then said it was the best feeling he’d ever had on a tennis court. When Nadal won a few hours later, he pumped his fist, shook Murray’s hand and went about his business.
Advantage Nadal. It was the best match Nadal had played all year, the most dominant he had looked.
So who’s going to win Sunday? I’ll go with Nadal, even though Djokovic spent the spring beating him. In Rome, Madrid, Miami and Indian Wells, Djokovic has gone 4-0 against Nadal this year. Two of those wins were on clay, Nadal’s best surface. It’s possible that Djokovic’ game matches up perfectly with Nadal’s in the same way Nadal’s counteracts Federer’s.
Wait, what was my point? Oh yeah, Nadal is going to win. I’m not sure I can explain that one technically, other than to say that he rises for the big moments. He starts storming the court and clubbing his opponent to death. For all the talk that he’s a claycourt specialist, he hasn’t lost on the grass at Wimbledon since the final in 2007; that’s 20 straight wins. He also has won his last seven major finals.
But it’s not numbers. By the end of the Murray match Friday, Nadal seemed to be twice Murray’s size.
Djokovic hadn’t lost a match all year going into the French Open. But he only became Tennis Superman this year, starting by beating Federer and Murray to win the Australian Open. The top players needed time to figure him out.
Murray began mixing up speeds against him in May in Rome to throw of his timing. Djokovic is a timing animal. Murray almost beat him, and then Nadal tried it. Then at the French, Federer perfecting the same book, beat him.
The pressure was on Djokovic there, because he was shooting for a record win streak, and also the No. 1 ranking. Now, the streak is gone and the ranking is his.
Is the pressure off? No. He still needs to beat Nadal in a major.
On Friday, Djokovic’ return-of-serve, the best in tennis, negated Tsonga’s big serve, and his speed and footwork forced Tsonga to keep more and more shots on the court. Those were two things Federer didn’t have against Tsonga a day earlier.
Murray won the first set off Nadal by playing aggressively and strong. But then on a crucial point early in the second set, he missed a setup forehand. That one shot, mixed with minor hip or abdominal pain, seemed to convince Murray that he couldn’t do it. Murray, still ahead, had gone into a funk while Nadal got better and better.
On Sunday, Nadal will go for his 11th major title, strengthening his argument as the best player ever (He is behind Federer in majors, 16-10, but way ahead in head-to-head.) Or, Djokovic could prove that he’s the best.
One match means so much. Just the way it should be. Take Nadal, 7-5 in the fifth.